From the very start of its run, Barry has been a critique of toxic masculinity. The comedy follows a disillusioned hitman (the titular Barry) who travels to Los Angeles on a job and decides that becoming an actor might finally give his life purpose. For most shows in this genre (men doing crimes because they’re sad), violence is shown as a form of freedom. It’s a break from the monotony of domestic life that has been imposed on the hero, and a cathartic expression of his deep-seated masculine urge for chaos. Barry subverts this idea from the beginning. For him, it’s violence that has become monotonous, and he sees domestic life and artistic expression as a potential escape.
This dichotomy is highlighted through his relationship with Sally, a fellow member of the acting class he joins. Basically, Barry falls for her because she’s a pretty girl who was nice to him one time. And she wasn’t even that nice. It might sound like an oversimplification, but that’s literally how it plays out. By episode three, he’s daydreaming about grocery shopping with her in between flashbacks of the violent murder he committed earlier that day. To him, Sally is an anchor to normalcy. By staying with her, he’s able to convince himself that he’s not such a bad person after all.
In many ways, she’s a direct parallel to Barry. Both characters are caught in cycles of abuse, but while Barry is an active participant in that cycle, Sally is constantly fighting to escape the manipulative, violent men who force their way into her life. We learn that she came to LA after leaving an abusive marriage, and even after starting her dream career as an actress, she’s expected to accept sexual harassment and demeaning roles in order to succeed. Despite standing up for herself in every one of these situations, she still carries so much guilt and shame for being abused in the first place.
Although Sally sees herself as weak, she needs other people to admire her. When she finally has a chance to tell the story of her marriage, despite claiming that she wants to be raw and honest, she changes the ending at the very last minute. She gives herself an inspirational girlboss speech about leaving her abusive ex instead of admitting that she ran away in the middle of the night. The audience loves it, but it just cements that feeling of shame in her. She tries to rewrite her past the same way that Barry does, but when she does it, she only hurts herself.
She and Barry are perfect for each other in all the wrong ways. The whole relationship is almost Shakesperian in its tragic irony. They’re only together because they both see the other as solace, someone who views them the way they want to be viewed. He sees her as this guiding star that will lead him out of his past and into a better life. She sees him as the safest option, someone who could never be capable of hurting (or outshining) her. But while Sally is eventually able to share her insecurities with him, Barry can’t properly engage with any of it. As soon as he shows even the slightest bit of his true personality, the relationship completely crumbles - as it should!
In a lesser show, Sally might have remained the Manic Pixie Dream Girl that Barry sees her as. Instead, Barry gives her so much depth and nuance that it’s impossible not to love her.
At least, that’s what I thought. Apparently, a lot of Barry fans really hate her.
Sally falls into a trope that I’ve affectionately termed the Prestige Bitch, a title that has very little to do with the actions of the character, and everything to do with how the audience perceives her. The Prestige Bitch is the female lead on a highly acclaimed show who, no matter what she does, is never able to win over the majority of viewers. They’re not antagonists, because antagonists get to have fun. The Prestige Bitch, like Breaking Bad’s Skyler White or Mad Men’s Betty Draper, is often just seen as an obstacle for the protagonist, tethering him to the “real” world and away from escapist fantasies of violence and debauchery.
Whatever narrative she’s actually given is usually disregarded by fans. Instead, she’s narrowed down to one singular function, and even when she does get storylines apart from the protagonist, they’re rarely as deeply analyzed as whatever he gets to do. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how well-written, nuanced, or compelling these characters are. The viewers have already turned on them for committing the ultimate sin of telling our hero (and de facto audience stand-in) that he isn’t completely justified in his actions.
And of course, Sally isn’t flawless. She’s self-absorbed and desperate for a sense of control in her life, often putting others down to try and maintain it. She’ll give a speech about how she’s honored to be uplifting other women, and then immediately remind her friend that it isn’t her place to talk during meetings. Like, she’s not a good person, but she’s a great character. She has flaws, but so does every man on the show.
Gene Cousineau, the teacher who runs Barry and Sally’s class, is a washed-up actor who can’t land a role because he’s pissed off literally everyone in Hollywood. He’s consistently selfish, inconsiderate, and abrasive, but I don’t see anyone calling him a sociopath. Barry’s handler Fuches uses literal abuse tactics to keep Barry under his thumb. Still, some people seem less concerned about that than they are about Sally putting her career above her boyfriend’s feelings. Noho Hank is actually an angel who’s never done anything wrong in his life, but I guess if I had to pick out one negative I’d say that being a heroin dealing mobster is probably not great, in the grand scheme of things.
And again, Barry is a literal murderer.
And more damningly, he’s not even a cool murderer. I can’t imagine that audiences are actually projecting onto him the way they might have with Tony Soprano or Dexter Morgan. When Barry kills someone, it’s either a routine job or part of a complete emotional breakdown. There are no badass set-ups, no quippy lines, not a glimmer of anything more than boredom or desperation. And when he’s not terrorizing people he’s, for lack of a better word, completely cringey. Like, this is a guy who never emotionally developed past middle school. He canonically got a job at Lululemon because he thought it was a candy store. He associates soup with thirst?? He is in no way a likable or admirable guy. So what could be aspirational about him, beyond the act of violence itself?
It's not that I believe people can’t sympathize with Barry or think that he’s an interesting character. The whole point of the show is that he’s actually deeply relatable in both the comedic and dramatic aspects of his character. I just can’t understand how there are people on Twitter calling him their poor little meow meow and claiming in the same breath that they can’t stand Sally. Because unlike Barry, Sally’s arc is one that we can actually root for. From the very first episode, the series has asked if it’s possible for people to change, and since then it’s become clear that Barry is in too deep to ever really make up for all the hurt that he’s caused. Sally, on the other hand, still has the potential to grow.
It makes the more emotional moments in her storyline all the more affecting. I don’t know how anyone can watch Sally swear with such confidence that she’ll never be with a violent man again, not realizing that she’s dating the most violent man she’s ever met, and not instantly sympathize with her. I don’t know how they can watch her realize how Barry’s many, many red flags already border on abuse, and not cheer along as she finally dumps him.
But somehow, people actually watched the scene where Barry shows up on the set of Sally’s TV show - a series in which she’s retelling the story of her abusive marriage - and screams at her in front of her coworkers because she won’t agree to help fix the mess he created during one of his many crimes, and they still came out on Barry’s side. He threatens to kill a child later in that episode!!
I’m not saying that people aren’t allowed to be annoyed by Sally. I wouldn’t want to be friends with her in real life, but this is not real life. It’s a TV show that is consistently challenging its audience to sympathize with people doing terrible things. I think it’s worth examining why it’s alright for a man to destroy countless lives for his own personal gain, but the second a woman prioritizes herself, she becomes unforgivable.
Ultimately, it seems like there’s no way for female characters to win. If a woman does everything perfectly, she’s a Mary Sue that deserves to be ridiculed. If she’s afforded even a fraction of the same flaws that male characters are given, she’s a cunt who deserves to be shot in the head (and yes, that’s a real statement I saw on the Barry subreddit - although I should know better than to even check that site).
This might seem like a trivial thing to get upset about, but the way that we react to fictional characters is a pretty good litmus test for how we treat actual people. Maybe I’m catastrophizing, but it feels like people are becoming more and more comfortable with dehumanizing women in media, and that has real-world effects. Right now, women’s rights are actively being stripped away. I keep seeing TikTok fancams for a guy with multiple assault allegations against him.
If people can’t even bring themselves to emphasize with a fictional woman who has been carefully crafted by a team of talented writers, what does that mean for the women who are just as fucked up and flawed as Sally Reed in real life? Is anyone going to bother trying to understand our lives? Or are we doomed to be written off as the bitch in someone else’s story?